Friday 30 October 2015

On a one-word reaction to reports about drunken Aussie accents

So the phone rings and it's a journalist from the Daily Mirror, wanting me to comment on the story circulating in the press this week, that the origin of the Australian accent lies in the drunken speech of the first convicts. I commented, all right. I used an ancient linguistic technical term: it's complete bollocks. Rubbish, I added, helpfully.

That wasn't enough, it seemed. I then had to spend the best part of an hour doing my best to persuade the journalist, who had obviously fallen for this story hook, line and sinker, (a) that it had come from an Australian academic, Dean Frenkel, who, though described as a 'speech expert', doesn't seem to have any backround in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics (one web site describes him as a 'left field artist' among other things), (b) that it wasn't especially new - it turns up regularly, along with similar myths from other parts of the world (such as that the Liverpudilian accent is the result of fog in the Mersey, or the Welsh rising lilt is because they lived in the mountains, or that the Birmingham accent arose because people didn't open their mouths very much to avoid the dirty air), all equally rubbish, (c) that there isn't actually any evidence to show that convicts 200 years ago spoke drunkenly to their children on a regular basis, (d) that drunken speech actually has very little in common with the examples cited of the Australian accent, and (e) that if she examined those examples, she'd soon see that they don't support the case at all.

For instance, standing pronounced as stending is described as 'lazy'; but [e] is higher up in the mouth than [a], and actually takes more muscular energy to produce; it's the very opposite of lazy. The characteristic [ai] in words like day is similarly said to be the result of lazy drunkenness - in which case all Cockneys are drunk, for this diphthong is found in that accent too (among many others). (Cockney, along with some other British accents, is actually one of the real influencers of Australian pronunciation.) To call the accent a 'speech impediment' or the result of 'inferior brain functioning', as he's reported to have said, is absolutely extraordinary. On that basis every accent is an impediment - apart, of course, from the one Dean Frankel holds in his mind as some sort of speech ideal. It's the kind of thinking that was common in the early days of prescriptivism, and it's surprising to see it surfacing again now. And appalling that the media should so readily believe it.

Was my long conversation with the journalist worth it? Not in the slightest. When the article appeared, she quoted a couple of lines from me about the diversity of accents in the UK, and allowed the story to come across as if it were gospel. 'So if the Aussie accent is down to booze, why do other parts of the world speak English so differently?' The word 'rubbish' didn't appear at all. Nor the other word.

It's yet another example of how the tabloid media masquerades fiction as fact, in the interests of what they think is a good story. The Guardian, for example, ran a piece debunking the myth, but that will hardly have an impact on the many readers of the Mirror and the Daily Mail (which also ran the story prominently) who will have read it, believed it, and repeated it. It's really depressing. This kind of journalism makes the job of a linguist so much harder.

Thursday 8 October 2015

On the latest Lingo

I'm aroused out of a period of bloglessness (explained below) by the arrival of the second issue of Lingo - the language magazine for young readers. This is the little sibling of Babel, that was aimed at older students, or indeed at anyone who has an interest in language and languages. It's not at all easy to present linguistic content to an age-range that is roughly top end of the juniors and low end of the seniors - Key Stage 3, as it were. But the editorial team at Huddersfield University have cracked it.

I got to appreciate the scale of the problem a few years ago when I was writing A Little Book of Language, aimed at young teenagers. To check I'd got the level right, I had my first draft read by a 12-year-old. She gave me a right beating up! 'Underline any bit you find unclear', I told her. And she did. She drew my attention to words and content that I had never dreamt would cause a problem. For example, in my chapter on professional pseudonyms, I had included examples like John Wayne. She underlined John Wayne. When I asked her why, she said she'd never heard of him. I had to find different examples (eg Eminem).

I see the Lingo team will be at the Language Show in Olympia, London, 16-18 October (stand 804). Well worth a visit, I'd've thought, if you are in the area. But if you're not, I would recommend anyone who's involved with teaching language (or languages) to youngsters to take a look at Lingo. I don't normally use my blog to advertise things, but I have to make an exception in this case, as it's the kind of product I've long been hoping to see getting into schools. It's visible online at

And now, back to a blogless life, caused by a killer project - a dictionary. There's nothing like dictionary compilation to take you away from the real world. It's not like any other kind of writing, where you are in control of your content. In a dictionary, the content controls you, in the form of the alphabet. The object in question will be out in March, The Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation. It's at the copy-editing stage, and next month I have to record the audio version and soon after go through the proofs. Believe me, there's nothing more blog-destroying than a set of dictionary proofs.